Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022

November 08, 2022

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022. This legislation will deliver more secure jobs, better pay and a fairer workplace relations system for Australian workers. How Labor is that? That is modern day light-on-the-hill stuff—so LED lights, obviously.

I will talk briefly about two things this bill is designed to do. The first is to ban pay secrecy clauses, and the second thing is bargaining, something I've had some experience in through working for the Independent Education Union, particularly dealing in the Christian schools sector, where you sit down and look at awards and at enterprise bargaining agreements. I also did enterprise bargaining many years ago with some of the independent, standalone First Nations schools in Queensland.

One of the key objectives of the bill is to help to close the gender pay gap, a great thing to do. All sensible Australians know that women should not be paid less than men, but we need to move from just agreeing and nodding to actually doing something about that. This bill aims to ban secrecy clauses so that companies cannot prohibit staff talking about pay if they want to. These clauses have long been used to conceal gender pay discrepancies. We would hate for any future female workers to be discriminated against, wouldn't we? I'm sure we can all agree on that. Banning pay secrecy clauses will improve transparency, reduce the risk of gender pay discrimination and empower more women to ask their employers for pay rises.

Over the weekend I attended the Queensland state Labor conference on the Sunshine Coast. The conference was addressed by many people, including the Prime Minister and the Premier, particularly a woman with professional experience in both the public and private sector. Her first job was in the Queensland Public Service when she was 17 years old. As an AO1 in the state Public Service, her salary and conditions were known and aligned with people doing the same work. The pay of her co-workers and bosses was made public and transparent, and staff were free to discuss their salaries openly.

Leaving the government some years later to work in the private sector, she soon learnt that transparency around pay and conditions did not exist. Over the years, she has had contracts that prohibited her from talking about her pay. She's had to negotiate her own employment contract, salary and conditions, unsure of what deals her colleagues and peers had secured, fearful of asking for too much, anxious and always unsure if she was underselling herself, and completely reliant on goodwill and the blind hope that her employer would do the right thing by her. In her own words, she made this very clear point: 'If we can't see something, if we can't talk about something, if there's no transparency, it inhibits our ability to organise, to advocate and to get a better deal.'

Multibargaining is already possible under the Fair Work Act through three streams: single interest, multi-employer and low pay. The problem is, if you look at the data, we know that the system isn't working. Wages have flatlined for nearly a decade while profits have soared and productivity has increased—I wouldn't say soared but it's increased. So something is not working.

Under this bill we're not creating new streams of bargaining, we're varying the existing streams to make them workable and get wages moving, something that we took to the election loudly and proudly. The largest aged-care provider in Queensland, Blue Care, has offered workers a two per cent wage increase and has made no attempt to lift the offer despite being forced by workers to the bargaining table.

I want to touch on that bargaining table for a second, because when I did do enterprise bargaining I sat at a table, with employers, with the workers I represented. I'm sure the member for Blair would have done the same thing, sitting at a table. Nowadays, I'm told—I've been here a while—there's no table because people meet virtually, and there's no bargaining anymore. Because of that gap between EB and awards, bosses basically say, 'Your wages can fall off a cliff if you don't take what I'm giving you.' Basically, it's one step away from coercion, where your wages fall off a cliff, your conditions fall off a cliff, so there's no more bargaining, no more table. We need to bring back the bargaining table.

Back to Blue Care. The aged-care provider, run by UnitingCare, employs thousands of aged-care workers who do incredible work, but they've steadfastly refused to improve the offer—despite inflation running at about seven per cent in Brisbane and other major aged-care providers giving workers pay rises well north of four per cent. Frustrated Blue Care workers stand testament to a broken bargaining system that has ended after months of protracted negotiations in stalemate. That's not the way to run an industrial relations system.

Think of all that effort, all that goodwill, for nothing—all that goodwill and innovation curdling into rancour in a workplace. In early October, Blue Care workers voted down the company's continued two per cent offer and are now waiting for negotiations to resume in their quest for a fair pay offer. If you know these workers, if you've met these workers, how could you look them in the eye and say, 'This system is working'? It's ridiculous.

The issues facing Blue Care workers demonstrate, across the nation, the difficulty in bargaining when the bargaining does not involve the ultimate decision-maker on aged-care workers' wages—in this case, the federal government being present at the bargaining table. It also illustrates the current ability of employers to play out a negotiation endlessly, with no actual obligation at any stage to come to a final acceptable position.

Labor's secure jobs, better pay legislation will deliver on a range of commitments that we made at the 2022 election and at the Jobs and Skills Summit. Don't be misled by people saying that we did not take this to the election and that we did not take it to the Jobs and Skills Summit. We want our reforms to modernise Australia's workplace relations system, get wages moving and achieve gender equity for Australian workers, because we all know that Australian workers have been doing it tough. For the last 10 years Australians has had a government that has deliberately kept their wages low. Do you remember that? Do you remember the former finance minister belling the cat and saying, 'That's a deliberate design strategy.' It was something that just came out of his mouth as if it meant nothing, but think of the misery visited upon households because of that commitment by the Liberal and National parties—the reformed friend of the workers from 22 May.